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I have a friend who recently adopted a boxer from a rescue (they've had the dog full-time for about a month now on a semi-trial basis). There is little information on his history as he was just found wandering on the side of the highway without a collar or identification. They estimate he is about 18-months old (in human years), and other than a few minor scars, he seems to be in fairly good shape so we don't think his situation was very traumatic.

The concern is the existing dogs in the house. They have 2 others. There is a 5 year old Chesapeake Bay Retriever (and in my opinion he is slightly crazy) and a 8 year old Pug. All 3 dogs are males and all 3 are fixed. The Chessie is a pure-bred bought from a breeder as a puppy and my friends have been his only owner. The Pug was adopted from a shelter when he was about 6-months old.

Prior to the arrival of the Boxer, the Pug and the Chessie were relatively indifferent to each other. The Pug let the Chessie have his way and never really bothered him much. The Chessie also happens to be very possessive of toys (or anything that he has near him) so after getting growled at a few times when they were younger, the Pug seems to have decided that avoidance is the best measure.

When the Boxer arrived, he and the Pug became fast friends to the point that when the wrestle and play, the boxer actually the Pug "win".

The interaction between the Chessie and the Boxer is the concern.

  • When all 3 dogs are together, the Boxer always seems to make a point to keep himself between the Chessie and the Pug, and seems to be watching the Chessie with unusual interest (almost like he is keeping an eye on the Chessie and protecting the Pug).
  • When just the Chessie and the Boxer are together one of 2 things happens
    1. The Boxer mirrors the pugs indifference and just let's the Chessie go
    2. The Boxer follows the Chessie around. This is the one that concerns everyone most. The posture of the Boxer appears to be somewhat aggressive. His head is lowered but stating right at the Chessie and he is always 2-3 steps right behind him. This will go on for several minutes and then the Boxer will go off and do something else

This 2nd situation is what worries myself and my friend, but his wife doesn't seem to think much of it. It appears to us that the Boxer is stalking the Chessie. We're just not sure why and how much we should be concerned. My friend's wife thinks that the Boxer is just following the lead dog around and thinks it is actually cute when it happens.

  • Is this stalking normal in that the boxer is just trying to test his limits with the biggest dog in the house? The Chessie outweighs the boxer by about 35lbs (which is about 16kg for my metric friends). The Chessie is close to 100lb and the boxer is almost 65lb, and the Chessie is almost as lean and muscular as the Boxer.
  • Or is my friend's wife right and there is nothing to be worried about?
  • Or is the Boxer sizing up the Chessie to challenge him? This is why we are concerned as neither of us wants to try to separate 165lb of dog going at each other.

If it is the latter, is there anything we can do to help keep the piece? Or is this something that will likely boil over at some point and it is just a matter of when?

  • The fact that your Chessie is a resource guarder is one of the most important elements here, although most of the question revolves around your Pug and Boxer. – CodeGnome Oct 12 '14 at 17:11
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I'm afraid to break it to you but I think the Chessie is the real problem. Dominance hierarchy theory has been comprehensively debunked, being based on studies of captive, unrelated wolves in zoos, which bears no resemblance to the familiar pack structure wolves adopt in the wild. There is also a big question mark over how much wolf behaviour can tell us about dog behaviour, as the two diverged so long ago and we adopted dogs (they probably domesticated themselves more than we them) precisely because they didn't behave like wild wolves.

To stop digressing, though, dogs are very social animals and very intent on keeping the peace. Given the history between the Chessie and the pug, it sounds like the Chessie is not always behaving in the most friendly manner. The pug's strategy for dealing with this is avoidance.

But what you describe of your boxer when all three are in the room is a classic calming signal. He's trying to keep the more high strung Chessie away from the calmer pug because he can see that the pug is not ok with it.

When it's just the two of them together, he's probably still trying to keep an eye on the Chessie, because he finds him unpredictable.

Whether there will ever be a spat between them depends on how well adjusted your Chessie really is. If he knows how to read the boxer's body language, which is telling him to calm down, he probably will. If he doesn't (it depends on how well socialised he is to other dogs), the boxer might warn him off a bit more unambiguously, for example barking, growling, snapping or mounting him.

If you're concerned, ask a professional trainer that you trust to evaluate your dogs, both together and on their own. Also, if you want to know more about dog body language, I highly recommend getting Turid Rugaas's DVD Calming Signals. It can be a bit hard to find, depending on where you live, and you'll have to tough out the cheesy music, 1990s handheld camcorder and Norwegian-accented dead flat tone of voice, but it's well worth it. It's an absolute eye opener. There's a five minute excerpt on YouTube.

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  • I believe the Chessie is a little nuts anyway, so it is not surprising he is the problem here. This is a really great answer, thank you. – psubsee2003 Oct 12 '13 at 17:24
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TL;DR

Whether or not your concern is warranted depends on the general level of socialization among all three dogs. You should also try to determine whether the level of threat from the Chessie or the distance-increasing behaviors from the Boxer are increasing or decreasing as a result of the social signaling passing between the three dogs.

Analysis

Your post contains several clues about the social signals being offered. While all interpretations are subjective, the following seem to fit the profile you've outlined.

Splitting

When all 3 dogs are together, the Boxer always seems to make a point to keep himself between the Chessie and the Pug

This behavior is generally called "splitting." From Calming Signals: 14 Ways Dogs Keep The Peace, splitting is:

[C]oming between you and your spouse when you hug, or between two posturing dogs, to diffuse perceived aggression[.]

Look-Aways

The Boxer mirrors the pugs indifference and just let's the Chessie go[.]

Lack of eye contact or engagement is a typical social defusion technique among dogs. The most obvious expression is a clear look-away, but a general show of disinterest is also generally effective.

Herding Behavior

His head is lowered but stating right at the Chessie and he is always 2-3 steps right behind him. This will go on for several minutes and then the Boxer will go off and do something else[.]

Unless this is accompanied by piloerection, hard eyes, or a stiff gait, it is more likely that this is a variation of herding behavior rather than an aggressive display. It really isn't possible to determine solely from your description, but since the communication appears effective (e.g. it serves the social function of preventing an actual fight) I would lean towards interpreting it as socially-appropriate on the part of your Boxer rather than stalking.

Recommendations

  1. Identify and prevent potential resource-guarding issues, including place-guarding, especially by the Chessie.
  2. Look for signs of persistent bullying and non-reciprocal behavior among the dogs, especially from your Chessie.
  3. Have a fight-intervention plan handy "just in case." An air horn, squirt bottle, or similar might be all you need to keep a tiff from turning into a serious injury.
  4. Have a professional trainer or certified behaviorist see the behavior in action to gauge the level of risk.
  5. As long as the situation stays status quo, and even if they escalate, please don't overreact. Try to stay calm and clinical, since your reactions (especially fear or tension) will feed into the situation.
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